Consequences Of The Skirmish At Lewis Farm, March 29, 1865


Horace Greeley’s famous call to go West could deafen a man’s ears to other admonitions. Curtis Johnson, the historian of Cortland County, writes that as early as the 185Os parents in that region could no longer depend on their children to settle nearby and care for them in their old age. Elisha Oswald Crosby, whom my grandfather must have known about arid envied, had gambled on migration and won. He had gone to California for the gold, become a member of that state’s first constitutional convention, and, during the war, served as an American diplomat in Central America.


The allure of the frontier was universal, whether answered or not. Walt Whitman felt it: “For these States tend inland and toward the Western sea and I will also.” He didn’t, except to visit and in his poems. Mark Twain did, all the way to California and even Hawaii, and though he returned East, he finished his most famous book with Huck Finn declaring his intention to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.”

But my model for my grandfather cannot be Huck Finn, who escaped family early in life. It must be Edith Wharton’s protagonist Ethan Frome, of Starkfield, a Massachusetts backwater, who “wanted to be an engineer, and to live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries, and ‘fellows doing things,’” who pored over advertisements about “Trips to the West: Reduced Rates” and, caught in a difficult marriage, like Charles, dreamed of a fresh new love.

Ethan hewed to responsibility, staying on a barren farm to care for sickly and dependent parents and a wife (preparatory to his tragedy). Charles may—or may not—have stepped off Ethan’s straight and narrow path as a young man and walked out on his mother and sisters. He certainly stepped off as a middle-aged man. It was then that Charles, a pathetically tardy Huck, deserted his wife and son (preparatory to the fiasco of his Western excursion and his return).

It is my belief that the minié ball that struck my greatgrandfather did not lose all its potency in that concussion but changed strangely, utterly, magically (but there was no magician, only the momentum of war) into a sly and heretical faith in the usefulness of obliquity, evasion, and, if all else failed, failure itself. As such it plunged on for two generations more, disabling my grandfather’s moral function and, in a last dissipation of momentum, mutilating my father’s very sense of self.

I visited the region of the Petersburg siege twenty or so years ago. It was about the same time of year as the Lewis Farm action, maybe a little earlier. The day was damp and cold, the flat ground stippled with snow. If I had turned off the highway, I would have been up to the hubcaps in mud. I drove up and down, back and forth, and finally asked an old man, probably the greatgrandson of slaves, for directions to Quaker Road. He smiled and told me I was on it. I didn’t find anything called Lewis Farm, which is not surprising: Buildings had fallen and risen and been renamed, forests and fields had exchanged places, in the century since the war.

I drove to City Point to look for Elisha’s grave. I doubt that Charles ever tried to find it. My father tried in 1918; failed. I found it. The stone read:


I had, I suppose, hoped for more.